‘Househusbands of Hollywood,’’ the new reality series that starts tonight at 9 on the Fox Reality Channel, is a lot more real than I expected it to be. Unlike the “Real Housewives’’ on Bravo, who tend to outsource anything remotely domestic, the five featured guys here actually clean their houses, run errands, and chase after little kids. They argue with their wives over how to do the dishes correctly. They even manage the real-life tensions that come with child care trade-offs - as when Mommy comes home from work, and baby clings to Daddy, and Daddy really wants to go to the bathroom. Alone.
The only parts that don’t ring true are the scenes when the guys get together, to play basketball in one husband’s driveway or hang out in another’s self-described “man cave,’’ a pathetic little space in his garage where he set up a few folding chairs. First off, it’s doubtful that they’d even know one another, were it not for the mutual contracts with the TV production company. But more to the point, hanging out and sharing guy talk isn’t what househusbands do. More often, they live in splendid isolation.
When we once traded stay-at-home duties in our far-less-glamorous household - five years ago, my husband took a paternity leave after my maternity leave ended - I noticed stark differences in our approach to the long, open days. I was a scheduler: Every day, I planned a play date or an errand or a museum outing, someplace to go where I’d have contact with adults. I joined a new mommies’ group that made regular rotations around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. I struck up lasting friendships with women I met toting infants around Jamaica Pond.
My husband, by contrast, tended to lie low in the house, making up games with the laundry basket, dabbling in gardening projects while our daughter munched small quantities of dirt. Sometimes, he took the baby to Costco or
Statistics tell us that, in these recessionary times, more men are taking up child care duties than ever. I see them around my neighborhood, pushing strollers, alone. I wish more of them had the guts to join the mommies, but “Househusbands of Hollywood’’ offers good evidence for why it doesn’t always happen. Grant, who stays at home with his toddler while his wife hosts TV shows, makes regular visits to one of those stores with a kids’ playspace inside. (He has figured out one of the secrets to stay-at-home survival: Get the kids tired. Very tired.) The mothers treat him like a pet, declaring that they put on makeup for his sake, ogling his eye-candy physique. “You’re the best mom here, Grant,’’ one of them coos condescendingly as he helps his daughter down a slide. “You’re the only one that plays with your kid.’’
Grant, a former Marine Corps sniper, is surprisingly unfazed. “I wish it was a whole bunch of dudes and we could sit around and talk motors or something, but it’s not, so I’ll take what I can get,’’ he says. Then again, he and his fellow TV househusbands have good reason for brushing the stigma aside: Nearly all of them are struggling actors, and now they’re getting coveted close-up time.
Still, it’s hard to be too cynical, since they truly seem supportive of their wives, who work as psychologists, attorneys, makeup artists. Billy, a former baseball player, squeamishly helps his wife do market research for a teenagers’ skin care line. Darryl, the longtime partner of “Cosby Show’’ actress Tempestt Bledsoe, dutifully cleans the house when she’s away on movie shoots. He hasn’t become a dad yet, but when the friends’ kids come by, he teaches them how to play poker.
That’s the best thing about stay-at-home dads: Their definition of “laundry’’ might be different from the moms’, but so is their definition of fun - and if they got together for real, they’d probably share some inspired ideas. They could even lend each other badly needed tough guy cred. What stay-at-home dad wouldn’t want to hang out with Charlie, an ex-bank-robber who now stays home with his 1-year-old? After all, he hasn’t truly abandoned his rogue ways. It’s just that now, he cons his friend into dressing as a chicken for his son’s birthday party.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org